Did China Almost Field the World’s Strongest Bombers? How a Tu-160 Acquisition Was Thwarted By Western Intervention

The Tu-160 heavyweight strategic bomber entered service in 1987 just four years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union and was one of a new generation of Soviet armaments alongside R-37 missiles, T-95 tanks, Ulyanovsk Class supercarriers, and other assets which were set to have had a major strategic impact on the balance of power between the two power blocs. 

While most of these programs were never completed the Tu-160 was produced in limited numbers with the large majority, an estimated 19 aircraft, is based in Ukraine. 

The Tu-160 remains in Russian Air Force service today with the production of a new advanced variant, the Tu-160M2, beginning in early 2018 while older airframes are brought up to this modern standard. 

The bomber is widely considered the most capable in the world, surpassing its U.S. analog the B-1B Lancer in all its capabilities and in most by a significant margin including approximately double the range and payload, a 65 percent greater speed, and far superior armaments. 

The Tu-160 remains one of Russia’s most formidable military assets and has been used to project power across the world from precision strikes against jihadists in Syria to patrols over the Arctic and the Indian Ocean and visits to airports in Venezuela and South Africa at politically critical times.

The Tu-160 was designed to target adversaries at extreme ranges of up to 3000km, and a bomber flying over Moscow can engage targets in London 2,800km away by deploying advanced variants of the Kh-55 missile. 

Combined with the bomber’s long-range, it provides Russia with an effective global reach for its aircraft which is a capability only the United States otherwise has. While the Tu-160 is today operated exclusively by the Russian Air Force, when Ukraine inherited the majority of the Soviet fleet in 1991 there was a significant possibility that the bombers would sold on to China which had a keen interest in modernizing its military by acquiring the latest Soviet weapons systems. 

Technologies Ukraine otherwise passed on included missile technologies to boost the Chinese strategic deterrent force, an unfinished aircraft carrier which would become China’s first carrier the Liaoning, and a prototype of the Su-27K/Su-33 carrier-based air superiority fighter which would aid the development of the J-15 Flying Shark.

While China operated a large number of Tu-16  medium-range bombers, which were produced and heavily modernized domestically as the H-6, the country was interested in procuring the Tu-160 which would have been its first heavy bomber and its first with an intercontinental range. 

Ukrainian Tu-160s were set not only to enter Chinese service, but also very likely to be studied in detail, reverse engineered, and produced domestically by Chinese defense firms as an indigenous variant perhaps under the designation H-8. Had these bombers entered Chinese service, they would very likely have been extensively upgraded and fielded in larger numbers by China than by Russia itself today, as was the case with variants of the Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter and with the Tu-16 as the H-6 due to China’s larger research and development investments and better-funded defence sector.

Deploying the Tu-160 in large numbers China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) would have very likely fielded the most capable bomber fleet in the world, particularly as the aircraft's closest rival the American B-2 suffered a lot of performance issues and saw a serial production run of just 20 aircraft.  

Western intervention, however, motivated by fears that advanced Soviet arms being transferred to China would revolutionise the PLA's capabilities rapidly, succeeded in preventing the sale of the Tu-160 to the East Asian state. 

The United States and its European allies moved to preempt the signing of a sale by Ukraine by providing the cash-strapped Kiev government with funds to scrap its bomber fleet rather than sell them to China. 

Similar aid packages, paired with very considerable political pressure, were used to coerce Ukraine to destroy its nuclear weapons or pass them on Russia. Although less notable weapons did make it to China, this effectively thwarted the transfer of technologies for the most advanced bomber in the world to the PLA which would have placed its fleet several decades ahead. 

As a result of Western intervention China's air force today still lacks an intercontinental range and is restricted to engaging regional targets such as Guam and carrier groups in the South China Sea with its H-6 fleet. While this is set to change with the induction of the H-20 stealth bomber around the year 2025, the loss of an invaluable opportunity to acquire the Tu-160 set China’s bomber program back many decades. 

Whether the H-20 will measure up to the capabilities of the latest Russian Tu-160 variant, the Tu-160M2, remains to be seen but is considered likely due to the state of the Chinese defence sector. 

With China continuing the production of the H-6 and modifying bombers for other roles including electronic warfare, ballistic missile carriage and long-range ship hunting, Chinese variants of the Tu-160 would very possibly have been similarly modified providing the PLA today not only with advanced strategic capabilities but also with superior tactical capabilities to better defend its interests in surrounding seas against a growing Western military presence. Indeed, a Tu-160 variant modified for ship hunting or shorter range cruise missile strikes across the Pacific would have been a considerable asset which China's People's Liberation Army is arguably far worse off without today. 

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